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Old Thursday, March 31, 2016
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SOON after Mumtaz Qadri was hanged, several of his supporters heckled Minister for Information Pervaiz Rashid at the departure lounge of Karachi airport. Several videos doing the rounds showed protesters attempting to throw a shoe at the minister. Yet amid all the frenzy a noteworthy part of the altercation was the discussion between the minister and the supporters.

As Rashid began to speak, several people in the crowd kept talking over him. A man intervened: “Let him at least express his opinion, we can have differing opinions; let him say what he has to say as we are expressing our democratic right to protest.”

It’s noteworthy because for some time now a significant majority has been deprived of that right. The mere mention of ‘free speech’ in mainstream media is seen as an excuse to justify attacking or insulting religion. It’s often depicted as a dirty word that is only ever used by people who supposedly have Western values. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

There’s no dearth of arguments on how the internet can or has served as a tool for engagement, debate and discussion — the same tool can be used to propagate and spread hate speech. Needless to say, hate speech and the internet is an issue that is being debated and contested the world over. How can one control it? What are the ways to do so without infringing on people’s right to express their opinion? How much is too much? And so on.

Curbing hate speech should not mean restricting debate.
In Pakistan, there have now been cases where people have either been arrested or sentenced to jail for spreading ‘hate speech’ online. This has prompted a need to understand how social interactions work online.

Take for instance the recent case of Rizwan Haider, 25, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for what the court deemed “sectarian hatred on Facebook”; his lawyer maintains that Haider only ‘liked’ the post and did not share it on his Facebook. For clarity, the lawyer is contesting that Haider did not share or propagate the material. This is important to understand especially in the context of the law and when our judiciary is faced with certain instances.

There’s also the compulsion of taking the ‘what’s on your mind’ tagline by social networks too literally. People have and will continue to use the internet to express their state of mind at a particular time that may or may not be politically correct.

However, that does not mean incitement to violence should be seen as a frame of mind and not be dealt with, but an understanding of how social networks function helps determine what the response should be, if at all. In the context of Pakistan, this becomes even more difficult because we have had our fair share of hate speech and incitement to violence being propagated offline and online. Yet, these two terms cannot and should not be used interchangeably.

As authorities vow to crack down on hate content, it’s important that this doesn’t further narrow the space to debate and reflect, ie authorities mustn’t regulate internet communications in a manner where debate or the space to express one’s opinion is sabotaged and the room for discussion narrowed even further. This is an issue that authorities globally are grappling with. So much so that recently the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression weighed in asking for governments to be careful in responding to the dangerous grey zone of expression, an area where speech is not a direct call for action or incitement to violence but can arguably prepare the ground for violent action.

There’s a troubling trend where speech is criminalised too often, without taking into account the nature of social networks and or the speaker’s intentions. Take the case of Iyad El Baghdadi an Arab activist and journalist whose Twitter account was suspended by Twitter, because he was essentially translating a speech from a leader of the militant Islamic State group. More often than not people liking, sharing or even following posts on social networks doesn’t and shouldn’t reflect an intention to commit violence.

Sectarian hatred is not new in Pakistan; much of it has been propagated through literature and further strengthened due to misconception and the lack of space to debate these issues in the open. It’s too contentious, they say. Yet, these issues and conflicts of several hundred years will not be resolved simply by coming down hard on a Facebook ‘like’.

If anything, now is the time to let these debates play out in the open even if it means that some of us will be exposed as hateful, unreasonable bigots. We owe ourselves the opportunity to speak about our differences, without being told that we are a people so violent that even a mere discussion can result in killing.

The writer is co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, a civil rights group working on gender and digital rights.
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